Throughout our stay in Ho Chi Minh City thus far, we have spent a good deal of time wandering through District 1, the most touristy area, soaking in the sights. There are a few standard destinations on any self respecting tourist’s list, and we’re slowly getting to all of them. Thanks to our cyclo tour, we hit several of the main pagodas. But for the rest, we’ve taken a cab into the district and just walked around.
There are several key buildings worth seeing, most from the French colonial years. The mini-Notre Dame, for example, is pretty clearly from this time period.
The Opera House (Municipal Theater) falls into that category as well.
Even with the statue of “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) outside, you can’t hide the fact that city hall is also in the French Colonial architectural style.
City Hall is not open to the public, and Notre Dame and the Opera House were closed when we visited, so all we had to go on was the outside. Right next to Notre Dame is the Saigon Central Post Office, another dominant French Colonial building. But this was open, and once inside, Uncle Ho was there to greet us again, reminding us that despite the style, this was most definitely Vietnam.
After the chaos of the postal system in Argentina, the open, calm, organized functionality of this post office was awe inspiring!
One part of the tourist route that clearly has NO western feel to it is the Binh Tay Market, an enormous Chinese-Vietnamese market. Once inside the walls, it is easy to get lost in the narrow alleys between the hundreds of crowded stalls selling clothing, spices, fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, meats, coffee, luggage, jewelry, appliances, purses, suits sewn to order in under 24 hours, and just about anything else you can think of, not to mention the stands selling prepared food for lunch. Since it’s a big tourist draw, the stall owners are aggressive and you can’t walk more than a meter or so without hearing “Madame! Madame! Come buy! Come look! Do you need X?” ”Mine is cheapest - you need!” Along with the dense smell of bizarre foods and compact humanity, it’s an overwhelming place.
This was one of the only places in the city where I was refused when I asked if I could take pictures. Many vendors turned me away, except for this trinket stall.
And I have to be honest, I sort of snuck this picture of snake/scorpion “wine”. I wasn’t told no, but I didn’t ask either. How could I pass this up?? OK, easy to pass up trying it, that will NOT be happening, but I just couldn’t resist snapping a photo of these deadly creatures trapped in something you’re supposed to drink!
The most common tourist spot in the city is the Independence (or Reunification) Palace. This “Historical Relic” is the anchor point to the tourist part of town. The original palace was built of western style in 1871, during the French rule here. In 1954, when the French left Vietnam, new Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem and his family moved into the Palace, making it their home in addition to its political role.
In 1962, during a Coup d’Etat, the Palace was bombed and an entire wing destroyed. Diem, still a year before his assassination, ordered the western style building destroyed and had a new palace built. The new building, designed by a Vietnamese architect, is what now stands in Ho Chi Minh City, and was built to resemble several Chinese characters symbolizing, among other things, good fortune, sovereignty, education, and prosperity.
I don’t want to turn this post into a lesson on Vietnamese history, so I’ll keep this brief. Diem makes some seriously unpopular leadership decisions, gets assassinated in ‘63, chaos ensues, war, and general yickiness follow. The Palace served as the center of the administration in Saigon throughout the war. In 1975 North Vietnamese tanks broke down the exterior gates, leading to the surrender of current president Duong Van Minh and ending the war. Now the building is used for political meeting and receptions, and as a historical relic for visitors.
Many parts of the Palace and grounds have been preserved in the state they were in over 35 years ago. While the gate has been repaired, those two tanks that broke into the compound still sit off to the side in front of the Palace.
The basement in particular still reflects its prior use as war headquarters and bunker. Strategy maps cover the walls in planning rooms.
The technology used for critical communications looked different back then.
Several rooms were filled with radios, both for use in the Palace as well as replacement parts for mobile devices used in the fields. Many of these units were from the US, and stamped as such.
And as we made our way to the roof, there stands a replica of the US helicopter used for evacuations at the end of the war.
We have heard it is much better than it used to be, but propaganda still reigns in this monument to the “unification of the Vietnamese people”. We stuck our heads in on a video about Vietnamese History, narrated in English. It was very uncomfortable to hear the overtly biased recounting of the “liberation of South Vietnam from the American Imperialists”, not the mention the outright lies. For example, referring to the American protests of the war, they said that self-immolation was a common occurrence (there were five, which was more than I thought, but not nearly the frequency that was suggested in the video). The video also claimed that 80% of US colleges closed in protest of the war.
Luckily, the blatant propaganda we found in this government run memorial seems to be contained, and does not reflect the attitude of the average citizen here. Whatever people here think they know or believe, it does not change the way the interact with us. We have encountered no ill will, no mention of war or our shared violent past outside of museums. We are just travelers, just another tourist with a wallet and a story, and warm smiles come our way.